By Moeed Yusuf & Thomas Lynch, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Moeed Yusuf is the South Asia adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace and Thomas Lynch is a distinguished research fellow at National Defense University. The opinions expressed here are theirs alone, not those of their institutions or the U.S. government.
U.S. peacemaking efforts in Afghanistan ultimately depend on a holistic, regional approach that mostly involves India and Pakistan.
In 2014, Afghanistan faces both the drawdown of American forces and the election of President Hamid Karzai’s successor, both significant transitions. The bid to create a stable post-2014 Afghanistan can only go so far without dealing directly with the intense rivalry between India and Pakistan – vested neighbors and nuclear regional kingpins. Yet despite recent positive overtures between the two sides, Pakistan continues to be deeply troubled by an increased Indian presence on its western border, while India is adamant to prevent Pakistan’s complete hold over Afghanistan.
The international community underestimates the explosive potential of the India-Pakistan competition in Afghanistan. Without intercession, the situation has the potential to become a brutal proxy battle with Afghanistan the venue for the 65-year-old India-Pakistan security competition. The two sides must therefore reconcile their concerns about each other – and their intentions for Afghanistan – to prevent disrupting intra-Afghan reconciliation progress and risking wider regional confrontation.
Pakistani thinking on what is desirable in Afghanistan has moved considerably over the past decade. Although India remains dubious, most accounts indicate that Pakistan is no longer interested in backing the Taliban’s bid to regain control of Afghanistan as in the 1990s. Instead, Pakistan is concerned about “encirclement” by an India-friendly government in Kabul on its western border and historical foe India to its east.
Given these fears, the Pakistani military-intelligence complex will continue to hold on to its proxies in Afghanistan as buffers against Indian ingress. Despite having a complicated – and not all positive – relationship with Pakistani intelligence, Taliban ethnic and logistical ties are likely to keep them sympathetic to Pakistani concerns about Indian encroachment in Afghanistan.
India also has taken subtle but clear steps to hedge against the Western drawdown in Afghanistan and an assumed continued presence of Pakistani proxies. Over the past several years, senior Indian intelligence and military officials have cordially welcomed ministers and parliamentarians from the Karzai government, providing police, judicial, and limited, but increasing, military training. There also are reports of senior Indian intelligence and military officials – active and retired – meeting frequently with northern Afghan tribal and political leaders. Details of these meetings are sketchy, but they can be surmised as setting the ground work for long-term Indian economic and security support for these groups should a Western departure set the stage for a resurgent Taliban.
India’s historic cultural and economic interests in Afghanistan collapsed during the time of the Taliban; New Delhi is resolved to prevent a return to that past. Since 2001, India has been the second most generous investor in Afghanistan’s economy. Candid discussions with senior Pakistani officials question why a majority of Indian projects are in relatively close proximity to the Pakistani border.
If Pakistan chooses, it can exercise its near-unlimited potential as spoiler in Afghanistan in an effort to thwart Indian aims. Indeed, it appears prepared for this option if its concerns with Indian presence in Afghanistan are not addressed. The post-2014 American presence in Afghanistan will be most valuable only if it underwrites an agreed framework for India and Pakistan to talk through rather than conduct armed combat over goals, disagreements, and complaints about each others’ activities in Afghanistan.
Two specific dialogues are required: an intelligence dialogue to allay mutual fears of the rationale and motives behind their political and security activities in Afghanistan; and a development dialogue to assure that vital economic and social development in Afghanistan does not come at the expense of legitimate security worries in New Delhi or Islamabad.
Indian and Pakistani intelligence communities – with outside facilitation – will have to come up with set protocols for bringing specific complaints and a verifiable mechanism to allay each other’s fears of activities in Afghanistan. Privately, both sides accept the need, but the history of animosity between the intelligence outfits and petty bureaucracy has kept such an effort from taking off.
On development, Pakistanis are less wary of general Indian presence than they are that a majority of the Indian-sponsored projects seem to them in proximity to Pakistan’s border. Concentrating Indian activity on the north and west of the country for future investment will likely be acceptable to Pakistan; Pakistanis of influence have noted this at a number of discreet track II dialogues. Given India’s post-2014 vulnerability in Pashtun-dominated areas close to the Pakistani border, the option may well be the best India can negotiate.
All this means that U.S. policy makers need to think about the future of conflict in Afghanistan in a regional context with much more attention toward Indo-Pakistani competition there. For too long, Washington has shied away from tackling this obstacle head on. It cannot afford to do so any more: Afghanistan’s stability and wider regional security depend on a successful U.S. facilitation role to get these two South Asian nuclear powers to find common ground in Afghanistan.